Whitefish Bay - Both Whitefish Bay defensive back Jackson Weber and running back Rashadeem Gray made beneficial adjustments to their games this past year.
And because of those changes, the pair not only led the Blue Dukes to their deepest WIAA state playoff run ever but also earned slots on the NOW All-Suburban football team.
"I worked all summer at linebacker but early in the season we thought it would be better if I went back to the secondary," said the junior Weber. "It was a mutual decision because at that point in the season, our secondary was starting to struggle."
It was a good fit, as Weber also earned first-team All-North Shore Conference at defensive back for the second year in a row.
"What happened," Blue Dukes coach Jim Tietjen said, "is that although he is strong, he suddenly became blockable at linebacker. When we moved him back (to the secondary), he wasn't anymore."
Focus on being complete
For Gray, it was more of a mindset than a physical change. Generously listed at 5-9, 160 pounds, the junior is a burner, with razor-fast top-speed - enough to have earned him key spots on the track team's state championship 400- and 800-meter relay units of June.
Needless to say, he loves the edge, but he also wants to be a complete back, too.
"When I first started in football," he said, "all the guys teased me because I wouldn't go inside (between the tackles). So, eventually I tried it and found out that it didn't hurt as much as I thought it would."
But he is grateful for the speed that the hard work on the track team honed.
"I almost didn't go out (for track last spring)," he said. "I'm really thankful I did now."
"He really broadened his game," Tietjen said. "He blocked well and helped out in the passing game, too. And there were many times he would fight for those extra yards and drag people along and help keep the sticks moving."
Those two were emblematic of the breakthrough 7-5 campaign of the Blue Dukes, as they advanced to the third round of the state playoffs for the first time in school history with a team that had only 10 seniors on it.
Keeping things in perspective
Tietjen is already trying to keep big talk about what will happen next year in perspective.
"We've had other good teams talked about in this way before," he said. "Teams that have gone toe-to-toe with state championship Homestead squads. I know people are already talking about us as favorites (in the North Shore) next year, but my philosophy is, is that talk is cheap. The game is played on the field. That's where you prove your worth.
"… We had a little bit of a good draw (against Bradley Tech), and we played a really great game against Brookfield East (in the second round of the playoffs), but we finished up the season playing some really good ball (before losing to eventual state D2 runner-up Waterford in level 3 of the playoffs).
"We had some trouble at the start of the season, but we cleaned things up and wound up minimizing our mistakes. We just got better each week."
Part of the deal was the intelligence of the unit. Weber was praised time and again by Tietjen for his endless film study and exhaustive knowledge of other team's tendencies.
"Watching film like this, you see how often teams tip off what they're going to do early on (in a play)," said Weber. "That way, it makes it easier for us to create problems for them."
One of the big tipping points in the equation this season was the addition of Hall of Fame coach Greg Lehman onto the staff as offensive coordinator.
Lehman worked with junior quarterback Grant Menard and a deep backfield that included Gray, senior fullback Deontaye Brown and sophomore halfback Turner DeMuth, and gradually, the Blue Dukes' wing-t attack came alive, highlighted by the explosion against East that included scores on seven straight possessions.
Gray said that having Lehman on the practice field along with Tietjen created a unique dynamic.
"He's a tough guy and he demands a lot," Gray said of Lehman, "so that gives us two tough coaches (with Tietjen involved). Offense or defense, now no one wants to step out of line. But his (Lehman's) way works."
Tietjen is grateful for the tough kids who come out for football at Bay and for the sacrifices that they make.
Challenge with multi-sport athletes
"We'd really like to get the kids in the weight room and get them bigger and stronger," he said, "but we have so many multi-sport athletes. Right now, we have kids involved in all the winter sports (Gray himself is a state-caliber wrestler), so it's hard for us to do as much off-season (conditioning), but still we have a good number working everyday."
The junior varsity was a competitive 7-2 this season while the freshmen were 4-4. A real source of encouragement was the large eighth-grade group (they actually fielded two teams this past season). Tietjen said that if the turnout is good as expected next year, Bay will have more than 100 players out for football at all levels for the first time in a long time.
"It's a little tough sometimes with our tradition of academic excellence here especially with the high number of kids we have going out for other sports," Tietjen said, "but we make it work."
Seniors included co-captains Pat Rose, Mike Letizia and John Platzer (Weber was also a co-captain) along with Tony Martinelli, Kelly Garth, Brown, Ryan Drews, Paul Lovy, Lennart Hansen, and Connor Weas.
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